Book Review Sabine Pass: The Confederacy's Thermopylae

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Rusk County Avengers

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By-Edward T. Cotham Jr.
Title-Sabine Pass
: The Confederacy's Thermopylae
Publisher- University of Texas Press
Pages-274, including index, bibliography and extensive notes
Price-Paperback $25
ISBN-0-292-70603-0

A couple of months ago, I decided to start researching the 2nd Battle of Sabine Pass, and I asked a friend who is very well researched on the battle what book he would recommend first. His reply was "Cotham is the final authority." and taking that into account I picked up a copy of this book, and with his great writing, extensive notes, and great research... Yeah I second that a hundred percent!

For most folks, they either:
A. Never heard of Sabine Pass
B. Heard of it, but look at it as an inconsequential skirmish
C. Heard of it, and look at it as one of the most lopsided battles of all time, with the wrong side winning numbers wise
D. Look upon it as the Alamo refought with Texas victorious that time around

In his book, Cotham shows its a little of all four. He begins with showing us an 1882 speech by Jefferson Davis to the Southern Historical Society in New Orleans, where he spoke of the "Jeff Davis Guards" and their stand against thousands of Union troops in a mud fort winning a victory in a battle greater than Thermopylae, where most folks listening may have never heard of it. From there we get right into the history of Sabine Pass's beginnings, through to the 1st Battle of Sabine Pass. We get a picture and history of the Confederate and Union participants, and we get to see the construction of Fort Griffin. We get introduced to the two engineers who designed a Confederate fort manned by Irishmen, (along with some Englishmen who were members of the Davis Guard that Cotham did not forget like most folks have), by a Pole named Valery Sulakowski, and a Swiss engineer who supervised the slaves who built it named Julius Kellersburg. A fort that withstood an actually well planned Union assault that went wrong from beginning to finish, with finger pointing abounding.

Before going further, I just got to say, a Confederate fort designed and built by a Pole and a Swiss, manned by Irishmen and Englishmen, in Texas, beating the snot out of a combined US Navy and Army invasion force is hilariously ridiculous when I think about it. But it happened...

Plus when the dust settled the only Union General to emerge relatively unscathed, and probably had the right idea of what the Union should have done was General Nathanial Banks! BANKS for God's sake, who was not even there and sitting in an office in New Orleans saying they should have followed his advise. Just in case no one knows, Banks was a political general, who was famous for getting "whipped" by Stonewall Jackson left and right during the Shenandoah Campaigns of 1862, and for his thrashing at the hands of General Richard Taylor during the Red River Campaign of 1864, but forgotten for his successes at Port Hudson. In a way, its hilarious that a politician playing at general, famous for incompetence, was the smart one in the Union Military hierarchy at Sabine Pass.

I suppose Sabine Pass was a place where the rules didn't apply. 45 Confederates severely damaging and forcing the surrender two Union ships, one commanded by an officer held in high regard by Admiral Farragut, and scaring off the Army landing force would point to the rules not existing at the place.

But when all is said and done, much to the possible disappointment of some, Cotham shows us, that the battle was not so much won by the Confederacy, but lost by the Union. I could go on, on that score, but I don't wish to spoil the book. This book does an excellent job of taking the reader back to the decks of the ships, and parapets of the fort, and does an astounding job of showing us that this wasn't just two inconsequential battles, but a long game of cat and mouse, with many CW notables, both there, and elsewhere, playing a constant game of chess to decide the wartime fate of Texas, everywhere from the decks of blockaders, to the offices of Generals and Admirals, moving they're pawns, knights and rooks to and fro to either maintain their hold, or conquer one small Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not a Trans-Mississippi fan? Not a blockade fan? If you answered yes to either of those two, I'd still recommend this book. Just because this happened all the way out in Texas, and not in Virginia, or Tennessee doesn't mean it's of no value. Speaking on the battle itself, combined with Chickamauga, this failed invasion of Texas caused the United States Credit Rating to fall, (albeit temporarily), and the Davis Guards defending the fort were the only Confederate soldiers to be issued medal during the War. No soldier under Lee, Brag, or Johnson can claim such noteworthiness and obscurity at the same time. This book, is the best way to see and learn about the men on both sides, and try's to help see it from they're prospective.

Just because no Confederates died, (yeah forgot to mention, not a single Confederate casualty other than minor burns or wounds, no deaths), and the Union dead didn't tally up into the thousands, doesn't mean this battle didn't have any meaning. This book is perhaps the best final argument for that, and shows that a battle, or battles in this case, where there's no massive lines of battle with banners flying, and officers rallying regiments to give the last full measure, can still be a desperate bloody affair, with far reaching consequences.

Plus any book about battle with only six cannons on one side (two of them already busted up and questionably repaired, and another disabled right after the battle started), versus twenty-six, and a invasion force of thousands, and the defenders emerging victorious without a death, is a book EVERY American Civil War enthusiast or researcher should read.

Grab up a copy for yourself, and enjoy.

Michael Pepper
Coffeeville, TX
"Rusk County Avengers" on Civil War Talk.
 
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Mr King

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Great review! I've never read this book but I have read this story coming from Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor by Gregg Clemmer(highly recommended) and wow, like Lampasas Bill said, it was truly a remarkable battle with the Union gunships who faced a confederate force of 200 irishmen with 6 cannons of old smoothbores commanded by Richard Dowling. The South could only produce so few confederate medals of honor, Dowling was one of the few who received one for his actions in this battle. I would definitely put this on my list.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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Great review! I've never read this book but I have read this story coming from Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor by Gregg Clemmer(highly recommended) and wow, like Lampasas Bill said, it was truly a remarkable battle with the Union gunships who faced a confederate force of 200 irishmen with 6 cannons of old smoothbores commanded by Richard Dowling. The South could only produce so few confederate medals of honor, Dowling was one of the few who received one for his actions in this battle. I would definitely put this on my list.
I think you missed the part of the review, where it was said the Confederate numbers engaged was 45 men. But counting officers, men there not counted on the monument, and a few others the grand total is 56. 200 Irishmen is a headscratcher to me.

Also the "Confederate Medal of Honor" is a much, much later invention. Long after the war...

I don't like to point out inaccuracies, buuut I couldn't it avoid on this. As for the "Confederate Medal of Honor" it was an invention to posthumously award to Confederates in 1977 by the SCV. If you referring to the medal awarded during their lifetimes, the Southern Cross of Honor may be the equivalent your looking for. It was an invention by the Daughters of the Confederacy came up with originally to give to noted Confederate Veterans who had been named in the wartime Confederate "Roll of Honor" but it later evolved into a medal awarded by the UDC to award any Confederate Vet. who served honorably, with a slew given out starting in the 1890's I believe.

I'm sorry, but the Davis Guards at Sabine Pass were the only ones given medals at all during the War. Back then, medals were a strictly European affair, before the War the real commander in chief of the Army, Winfield Scott worked to forbid medals in American military service, (and rightly so in my opinion, if it were up to me the military still wouldn't dish them out), because it was a European custom, and we are Americans. Of course that didn't stop militia organizations from doing it for style more than anything else, heck after Scott was gone and the Medal of Honor was introduced they gave them out like candy for recruitment more than anything a lot of the time. As for the Confederacy, it was filled with men tutored by Scott, and that along with more important things to do, precluded any medals from being dreamed up. Although a "Roll of Honor" was.

When it comes to the Davis Guards, I will note of course they were mostly European, they had performed a marvelous unbelievable action, and the people of Texas, and more specifically the city of Houston and General Magruder, raised the money for the silver medals to be made and presented to the defenders of Sabine Pass, along with others who were there, and to send to the unit's namesake, Jefferson Davis, and while legitimately the only wartime Confederate medal, it was not awarded by the Confederacy, nor was any other. (The book covers this in detail.)

As a side note, Jefferson Davis highly treasured the medal presented to him, as he was the namesake of the unit and an honorary member (probably the only military medal awarded to the man who preferred military to politics), and after it was stolen from him by Union soldiers in 1865, he continually searched for it, hoping to recover it, along with some other items stolen from him I'm sure. Even after being presented a replacement medal by surviving members of the Davis Guard at the Texas State Fair in 1875, he still searched high and low for it, but never did. Personally I wonder if it has ever been found.

I'm curious, where did you read it was 200 Irishmen at Sabine Pass?
 

Mr King

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You're right. I went back to re-read this and it wasn't 200 men. I honestly don't know why or when I thought there were 200 men unless I may have read another source in the past that was incorrect or more likely from a different battle. Thanks for the correction.
 
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Rusk County Avengers

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You're right. I went back to re-read this and it wasn't 200 men. I honestly don't know why or when I thought there were 200 men unless I may have read another source in the past that was incorrect or more likely from a different battle. Thanks for the correction.
Oh don't worry about it, it happens to everyone.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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I had the honor of having lunch with Ed Cotham, Jr., when I visited Houston a few years ago-- Andy Hall and I said we'd meet for lunch when I was down there, and he brought Ed along. Two authors for the "price" of one... Let me tell you, I was very sad for that lunch to end, but I had a date with a special lady (the battleship Texas)!
 

Mr King

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Rusk County Avengers, you've got to stop writing good reviews because now I want this book! haha! joke! But I'm going to hold off buying books for awhile but this is on my list. Keep up the good work!
 
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CWH1234

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View attachment 321311
By-Edward T. Cotham Jr.
Title-Sabine Pass
: The Confederacy's Thermopylae
Publisher- University of Texas Press
Pages-274, including index, bibliography and extensive notes
Price-Paperback $25
ISBN-0-292-70603-0

A couple of months ago, I decided to start researching the 2nd Battle of Sabine Pass, and I asked a friend who is very well researched on the battle what book he would recommend first. His reply was "Cotham is the final authority." and taking that into account I picked up a copy of this book, and with his great writing, extensive notes, and great research... Yeah I second that a hundred percent!

For most folks, they either:
A. Never heard of Sabine Pass
B. Heard of it, but look at it as an inconsequential skirmish
C. Heard of it, and look at it as one of the most lopsided battles of all time, with the wrong side winning numbers wise
D. Look upon it as the Alamo refought with Texas victorious that time around

In his book, Cotham shows its a little of all four. He begins with showing us an 1882 speech by Jefferson Davis to the Southern Historical Society in New Orleans, where he spoke of the "Jeff Davis Guards" and their stand against thousands of Union troops in a mud fort winning a victory in a battle greater than Thermopylae, where most folks listening may have never heard of it. From there we get right into the history of Sabine Pass's beginnings, through to the 1st Battle of Sabine Pass. We get a picture and history of the Confederate and Union participants, and we get to see the construction of Fort Griffin. We get introduced to the two engineers who designed a Confederate fort manned by Irishmen, (along with some Englishmen who were members of the Davis Guard that Cotham did not forget like most folks have), by a Pole named Valery Sulakowski, and a Swiss engineer who supervised the slaves who built it named Julius Kellersburg. A fort that withstood an actually well planned Union assault that went wrong from beginning to finish, with finger pointing abounding.

Before going further, I just got to say, a Confederate fort designed and built by a Pole and a Swiss, manned by Irishmen and Englishmen, in Texas, beating the snot out of a combined US Navy and Army invasion force is hilariously ridiculous when I think about it. But it happened...

Plus when the dust settled the only Union General to emerge relatively unscathed, and probably had the right idea of what the Union should have done was General Nathanial Banks! BANKS for God's sake, who was not even there and sitting in an office in New Orleans saying they should have followed his advise. Just in case no one knows, Banks was a political general, who was famous for getting "whipped" by Stonewall Jackson left and right during the Shenandoah Campaigns of 1862, and for his thrashing at the hands of General Richard Taylor during the Red River Campaign of 1864, but forgotten for his successes at Port Hudson. In a way, its hilarious that a politician playing at general, famous for incompetence, was the smart one in the Union Military hierarchy at Sabine Pass.

I suppose Sabine Pass was a place where the rules didn't apply. 45 Confederates severely damaging and forcing the surrender two Union ships, one commanded by an officer held in high regard by Admiral Farragut, and scaring off the Army landing force would point to the rules not existing at the place.

But when all is said and done, much to the possible disappointment of some, Cotham shows us, that the battle was not so much won by the Confederacy, but lost by the Union. I could go on, on that score, but I don't wish to spoil the book. This book does an excellent job of taking the reader back to the decks of the ships, and parapets of the fort, and does an astounding job of showing us that this wasn't just two inconsequential battles, but a long game of cat and mouse, with many CW notables, both there, and elsewhere, playing a constant game of chess to decide the wartime fate of Texas, everywhere from the decks of blockaders, to the offices of Generals and Admirals, moving they're pawns, knights and rooks to and fro to either maintain their hold, or conquer one small Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not a Trans-Mississippi fan? Not a blockade fan? If you answered yes to either of those two, I'd still recommend this book. Just because this happened all the way out in Texas, and not in Virginia, or Tennessee doesn't mean it's of no value. Speaking on the battle itself, combined with Chickamauga, this failed invasion of Texas caused the United States Credit Rating to fall, (albeit temporarily), and the Davis Guards defending the fort were the only Confederate soldiers to be issued medal during the War. No soldier under Lee, Brag, or Johnson can claim such noteworthiness and obscurity at the same time. This book, is the best way to see and learn about the men on both sides, and try's to help see it from they're prospective.

Just because no Confederates died, (yeah forgot to mention, not a single Confederate casualty other than minor burns or wounds, no deaths), and the Union dead didn't tally up into the thousands, doesn't mean this battle didn't have any meaning. This book is perhaps the best final argument for that, and shows that a battle, or battles in this case, where there's no massive lines of battle with banners flying, and officers rallying regiments to give the last full measure, can still be a desperate bloody affair, with far reaching consequences.

Plus any book about battle with only six cannons on one side (two of them already busted up and questionably repaired, and another disabled right after the battle started), versus twenty-six, and a invasion force of thousands, and the defenders emerging victorious without a death, is a book EVERY American Civil War enthusiast or researcher should read.

Grab up a copy for yourself, and enjoy.

Michael Pepper
Coffeeville, TX
"Rusk County Avengers" on Civil War Talk.
Interesting, I'm a have to get that book as well
 

bdtex

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Really good book and review. I was out of town the weekend of 8/17,at a place with a weak cell signal and weak wifi,and somehow missed this thread. Thanks for featuring it @ami . Timely. The battle anniversary was Sunday.
 

Texas Johnny

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FYI, Amazon has the paperback listed for $24.30 and a Kindle version for $14.49. In the reviews on Amazon 85% gave it 5 or 4 stars and 14% 3 stars. Nothing less than 3 stars.
 

bdtex

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Used copies are available on Abebooks for as low as $15,including shipping.
 

Rusk County Avengers

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FYI, Amazon has the paperback listed for $24.30 and a Kindle version for $14.49. In the reviews on Amazon 85% gave it 5 or 4 stars and 14% 3 stars. Nothing less than 3 stars.
Yes the rule on listing the price is common new price, which at Amazon is $25.00, as I posted though as of today it is now $18.94. Used prices are not covered in Book Review price listings.

Got to love used prices though, I went that route myself.
 
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